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U.S. contentious new embassy opens in Jerusalem amid riots

Sheetal Sukhija - Tuesday 15th May, 2018

JERUSALEM - As the U.S. plans to inaugurate its contentious new embassy in Jerusalem, the move has been widely criticized and protests by Palestinians along the Gaza border turned more violent.

On Monday, the U.S. will open its embassy in Jerusalem at a U.S. consular building in the Arnona neighbourhood, a move that has thrilled Israel but infuriated Palestinians.

The building, which is located in the middle-class area of the Arnona neighborhood of the ancient city, has seen Washington already investing around $400,000 on upgrades so far.

The U.S. State Department confirmed that Ambassador David Friedman is set to continue operations in the existing consular offices until a purpose-designed embassy is planned and built.

While U.S. President Donald Trump won’t be attending the controversial inaugural event, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the President’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, senior White House aide Jared Kushner will be in attendance.

Trump's unilateral decision made last December, has caused much furore as thousands of enraged Palestinians - who want to make the eastern, mainly Palestinian, part of the city the capital of their future state - gathered along the Gaza border to protest the move.

Palestinians have argued that Trump's decision ignores their demands.

Last December, Trump decided to break with decades of U.S. policy and recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

The embassy move comes months after that decision was made and it was welcomed by Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said that the U.S. President’s decision reflected that "the Jewish people have had a capital for 3,000 years, and that it is called Jerusalem." 

However, the Arab world and Western allies were upset with Trump’s move. 

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called it a "slap in the face.”

He declared that the United States can no longer be regarded as an honest broker in any peace talks with Israel. 

However, the Trump administration has argued that it has a peace proposal in the works and that by recognising Jerusalem as the capital of America's closest ally he had "taken Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table." 

On Monday, several thousand Palestinians gathered near the Gaza border, while smaller numbers of stone-throwing Palestinians reportedly even approached the fence.

As the inaugural event drew close, officials warned that seeking to damage it with Israeli snipers positioned on the other side.

larger crowds were expected later in the day, to protest the U.S. embassy move from Tel Aviv to the disputed city of Jerusalem.

Then, later in the day, as dignitaries gathered for the highly anticipated opening, dozens of Palestinians were reported dead.

According to the Gazan health ministry, over 40,000 were protesting at the border, and while 41 Palestinians were reported dead, over 1,600 protesters were injured - with 772 suffering injuries from live gunfire.

The Israeli army has said that it was prepared for possible rocket fire from the Gaza strip.

According to local reports emerging from the area, Israeli police officers stormed into a crowd of Palestinian and Israeli left-wing activists, grabbing Palestinian flags.

Several protesters were reportedly detained. 

In a statement released to the media, Israeli army spokesperson Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis said that the number of protesters at the fence on Monday was “unprecedented.”

He added that the number was still lower than what Hamas “wished for and predicted.”

Manelis also confirmed that Israel struck Hamas targets in the north of the Strip after several incidents where Palestinians opened fire on Israeli soldiers. 

Speaking at the inaugural event meanwhile, Friedman invited the dignitaries and said that 70 years after America was the first nation to recognize Israeli, “it now becomes the first nation to move its embassy to Jerusalem.“

According to a U.S. embassy spokeswomen quoted in reports, "Initially, the interim embassy in Arnona will contain office space for the ambassador and a small staff. The ambassador will continue to divide his time between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem during the initial phases of the embassy move, as this is a multi-year process."

The embassy spokeswoman added that the foreign diplomatic corps has not been invited as the event is considered a bilateral one.

Adding that at the building, which opened to the public in 2010, consular operations including American citizen and visa services “will continue at the Arnona facility without interruption, as part of the embassy.”

According to reports, the compound cuts across the 1949 Armistice Line that separated West Jerusalem from No Man's Land, which Israel captured in the 1967 Six Day War and has held under occupation ever since. 

Meanwhile, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has said that the city will name a small roundabout adjacent to the embassy as "Trump Square.”

He said in a statement, "Naming this square in honour of the president is our way of showing our love and respect for the president and the American people.”

In a statement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Trump's December declaration recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital was "the right thing to do." 

Netanyahu said, "Thank you, President Trump, for your bold decision. Thank you for making the alliance between Israel and the United States stronger than ever." 

He added that Trump's decision recognized a 3,000-year Jewish connection to Jerusalem and the "truth" that Jerusalem would be Israel's capital under any future peace deal.

Jerusalem - a city sacred to Judaism, Christianity and Islam and with each religion having sites of great significance there - has been one of the thorniest issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel's government regards Jerusalem as the eternal and indivisible capital of the country, even though this is not recognized internationally. 

Palestinians meanwhile claim that East Jerusalem must be the capital of a future Palestinian state. 

In recent years, while pressure from pro-Israel politicians in Washington has mounted, to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Trump made it a promise of his 2016 election campaign. 

Further, Vice President Mike Pence and David Friedman have both reportedly pushed hard for both recognition and embassy relocation.

To make the campaign vow a reality, Trump acted under a 1995 law that requires the United States to move its embassy to Jerusalem. 

In comparison, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have all consistently signed waivers. 

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